Goya – Disasters Of The War

THERE are surely in the world few more unlikely places in which to surprise a stroke of political sagacity than the works of that homme à bonnes fortunes, Giovanni Casanova. The affairs of what I suppose he would call his heart left him only too little leisure to ruminate upon the affairs of nations. Yet an observation of his which he has duly recorded in his Memoirs shows a really penetrating insight into the psychology of the Spanish people. ” Que vous faut-il ? ” he inquires rhetorically of a Spaniard in the year 1768, and then reports himself as making answer : ” Une forte révolution, un bouleversement total, un choc terrible, une conquête régénératrice . . . il faut le feu cautériser la gangrène qui vous ronge.” If we are to take these words in a predictive sense the saying becomes the more remarkable still, for the Guerra de la Independencia, which we know better as the Peninsular War, could scarcely be more aptly summarised than as ” un bouleversement total, un choc terrible ” ; and if that drenching baptism of blood failed to regenerate altogether the Spanish people, at least it roused them from their age-long lethargy into a momentary frenzy, whether demoniacal or divine it must be left to every man’s discretion to determine.

The year 1808 ushered in the glorious disasters of the war. It was one of those anni mirabiles, when the slow-grinding mills of God for once revolve with roaring haste, responsive to some secret acceleration of the machinery of Fate. The revolution of Aranjuez, the downfall of Godoy, the abdication of Charles IV., the delirious entry of the young prince into Madrid as Ferdinand VII., the post-haste flight of all the royal family across the Pyrenees, compelled by the bullying cajolery of Napoleon, the insurrection and carnage of the dos de Mayo, the proclamation of Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor’s brother, as wing of Spain and the Indies—all this was accomplished within the space of a couple of months. We cannot stay now to take the measure of these events, but we must arrest the whirling cinematograph at the memorable 2nd of May and look for a moment at Goya’s ensanguined vision of that fateful day, with its ghastly sequel of the following dawn.

Forty thousand French troops under Murat held Madrid. The populace silently and sullenly looked on. The atmosphere of Maravillas and Lavapies was dangerously explosive—the majos muffled themselves in their cloaks and scowled more ferociously than ever, the majas jeered openly at the strange French uniforms. But as yet the uneasy quiet which hung over the capital was undisturbed by any act of violence. Ferdinand, fooled to the top of his bent by Napoleon, had posted off to Bayonne to get the Emperor’s confirmation of his accession to the throne, leaving orders that the French were to be treated in friendly fashion. On the morning of the 2nd of May a couple of coaches ready for the road drew up in front of the royal palace. The Madrilenos gathered round in curious crowds to see what was on foot. Who was going on a journey

Presently the news spread that it was the little Infante Don Francisco-he of the flaming scarlet trousers in Goya’s group of the royal family who was to be whisked off over the Pyrenees by the Emperor’s orders. This was too much. The people, who had allowed a foreign army to march through the country and seize the capital without raising a finger, exploded with anger at the kidnapping of a prince of the royal house.

With one of those incalculable, spontaneous impulses of the mob, the Madrilenos flung themselves upon the French Imperial Guard. Knives flashed out from beneath the long cloaks and hacked at horses and horsemen ; heavy cavalry swords slashed at the citizens indiscriminately, armed and unarmed. The artillery, which was posted in the square before the royal palace, now choked with the crowd, was brought into action. The guns spoke, and cleaved narrow lanes of death through the living mass. Again and again roared the murderous volley, and then the savage Mamelukes were let loose upon the broken and flying Madrilenos, chasing them up the Calle Mayor and cutting them down in hundreds in the Puerta del Sol.

This ghastly day, the dos de Mayo, was followed by a yet more terrible night. Murat gave orders for the arrest of all who were found carrying arms or assembled in groups of more than eight, or who were suspected of molesting the French or of being friends of the English. Hundreds of citizens, guilty and innocent alike, were seized, marched outside the town, made to kneel down in the pale lantern light, and shot point-blank by platoons of infantry. The dawn broke, and still from the valley of the Manzanares and the slopes of the Montana del Principe Pio came the dreadful rattle of musketry. In all, more than two thousand Spaniards paid for their explosion of patriotism with their lives.

Goya has perpetuated the memory of these harrowing scenes in the two large canvases which hang in the ante-room of the Prado Gallery. One, ” Episodio de la invasion francesa en 1808,” represents the struggle in the Puerta del Sol—the Spaniards sticking their daggers into the horses and tearing the Mamelukes out of the saddle. A scene of murderous confusion, and yet a confusion rather too suggestive of the flowing convention of the battlepiece to convince us of the presence of the painter as an eyewitness. The other picture, ” Escenas del 3 de Mayo,” seems unquestionably to be the rendering of a thing seen, and not only seen, but felt, in the very quick of the spirit.

The scene is a bare hillside just out of Madrid. The city itself is dimly silhouetted against the leaden sky of dawn. In the foreground the firing party is drawn up. The attitudes of the soldiers are finely observed. They stand solidly planted on the ground, their heads inclined with a grim, business-like intention over the stocks of the levelled muskets. A direful significance transforms these common French privates into anonymous figures of destiny, sombre, avenging, implacable. And that murderous row of gun-barrels, pointed with bayonets, which we meet again and again in Goya’s studies of the war, as though it had bitten itself ineffaceably into his memory, be-comes a kind of symbol of blind, unrelenting, pitiless doom. Only a foot or two from the points of the bayonets kneel the convulsive, flinching victims, some with arms desperately flung out and eyes starting with terror, some with hands folded and heads bowed in shuddering dismay. Before them in a pool of blood lie the bodies of their comrades, their faces rent with the musket balls. Behind them another batch of victims is seen approaching, seeking to blind themselves from the horror of the scene by burying their heads in their hands.

Had all the tones of the picture been kept within the range of the prevailing drab and leaden grey, its tragic power would have been sufficiently compelling, but the cold stream of light gushing out from the huge lantern and bursting upon the vivid yellow of the shirt of the swart-faced kneeling figure in the centre, carries the sense of horror to an almost intolerable pitch. The eye ranging at large over the scene is peremptorily recalled to that blazing yellow shirt. Colour was surely never used with a more sensational effect. It is clamant and penetrating. The very paint becomes audible and the agonised shriek of the wretched victim rings out upon the still air of dawn.

Perhaps there is no picture the technique of which is more significant of the painter’s temper. It plainly betrays in every inch Goya’s mood of nervous excitement. He has discarded the brush and dashed the paint on with the knife. Every stroke seems to have been delivered with the fierceness of a blow. It is not so much a manipulation of paint as a manifestation of bitterness and ire. The emotion which this picture arouses in us is well expressed by the Italian writer, De Amicis, when he says : ” It is the last point which painting can reach before being translated into action ; having passed that point one throws away the brush and seizes the dagger . . . after those colours comes blood.” Yet with all its passion the picture shows the working of an intense restraint. Contrast it with all the other tragic pictures of which there is no lack in the galleries of Europe. In most of them the element of tragedy is achieved by the heat and height of colour and by a con-fusion of tumultuous line. Here, with the single exception of the blinding yellow, the colour is almost monochrome ; the composition is extremely simplified and derives a certain rigidity from the predominance of vertical and horizontal lines. The tragic quality is determined by a sense of deliberation and inevitability. And how fine an emotional value is added by the distant view of the sleeping city. It does much more than localise the scene—it suggests that strange, indifferent tranquillity which places seem to assume when they become the scene of our human tragedies.

It has been said that in looking at this picture we must think of Goya first as a patriot and only secondarily as a painter. And yet within a few weeks we find the patriot taking the oath of allegiance to King José and wearing the cross of the invaders’ Legion of Honour on his breast. ” Kings may come and kings may go . . .” Would you rather expect to find this fiery son of Aragon, gun in hand, at the barricades ? But the springs of the passions are not so quickly touched after the lapse of sixty-two years. Goya found himself in that dilemma which confronted all the intellectuals at this crisis of the country’s history. The national party was the stupid party, bigoted and reactionary. The vicious Ferdinand was its incredible idol. On the other hand, the rule of the usurping Joseph promised an immediate application of that reforming zeal which had just regenerated France. In most cases self-interest swayed the balance in favour of the new dynasty. It seemed prudent to be on the side of Napoleon’s big battalions. Almost all the members of the official and educated classes became afrancesados, partisans, enthusiastic or otherwise, of the French. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that only a week or two after the outbreak of the 2nd of May the pusillanimous Ferdinand wrote a servile letter to Napoleon expressing ” his satisfaction at seeing his dear brother, King José, seated on the throne of Spain.” When the King himself had hauled down his colours, was it not permissible for the subject to lay down his arms ?

I cannot, in fact, believe that Goya’s interest was deeply engaged in the scuffle of politics. He was determined, if he conveniently could, to keep his place and his emoluments. For the rest he cared only to be at leisure to pierce with those lynx eyes of his beneath the surface show of things to the underlying ecstasies and agonies of the spirit. The issues which absorbed him were deeper and vaster than those of the politician and the economist. In the depths in which his tortured spirit dwelt the noise of the collision of factions and of the collapse of thrones was scarcely audible. He saw the tragedy of his country but as an aspect of the grander tragedy of human life.

We shall better understand the spirit of Goya’s terrible and beautiful series of etchings, “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” if we first take note of the character of the war itself. It was not so much a guerra as a guerrilla, not an ordered contest on a large scale but a scattered series of brutal and bloody episodes. The planning of the campaign and the brunt of the main engagements fell chiefly upon the English. On the Spanish side there was neither organisation nor leadership.

The Junta Suprema de Espana é Indias, supreme only in its inefficiency, was ignorant even of the name of its own commander-in-chief ! The sole strength of the Spanish cause lay in the frenzied hatred of the Spanish people for the foreigner. During the past three hundred years the national spirit, which had seemed to be extinguished, was but smouldering subterraneously. The outbreak of the dos de Mayo fanned it into a raging flame. For the mass of the people the causes of Faith and King and Country were one and indivisible. France, atheistical, republican and alien, was the negation of all three. The war had the character of a crusade—it was a war of extermination.

Nothing could show more vividly the fanaticism of the popular hatred of the French than the contemporary literature of the nationalist party. A spirited document, entitled “A Civil Catechism and Brief Compendium of the Obligations of the Spaniard,” sets forth the popular creed in somewhat startling terms. Here is an extract :

“Question.—Tell me, child, what are you called ?

Answer.—A Spaniard.

Q. How many obligations has a Spaniard, and what are they ?

A.—Three : to be a Christian—Catholic, Apostolic and Roman ; to defend his religion, his country and his laws ; to die rather than be conquered.

Q.—Who is the enemy of our felicity ?

A.—The Emperor of the French.

Q.—And who is this man ?

A.-A new lord, infinitely evil and avaricious, the source of all evil and the destroyer of all good ; he is the compendium and depository of all vices and iniquities.

Q, How many natures has he ?

A.—Two—one diabolical and the other human.

Q.—Is it a sin to kill a Frenchman ?

A.—No, padre, on the contrary, we gain heaven by killing one of these heretic dogs.”

The gross caricatures of Bonaparte over which the English mob made merry seem to lack body when compared with this portentous and dogmatic denunciation.

The seed of hate bore a harvest of slaughter. From Galicia and Valencia, from Andalucia and Castille, from every quarter of Spain, came tales of massacres of the French, and outrages upon the afrancesados. The people acquired a frightful taste for blood. A story is told of a village in Estremadura which would be ludicrous were it not tragically significant of the popular temper. The natives of Almaraz, converting their plough-shares into swords, marched in a body to the mayor. ” What do you want ? inquired the functionary. ” Sir,” replied the spokesman of the mob, ” we wish to kill somebody. In Trujillo they have killed one, in Badajoz two or three, in Merida as many more, and we don’t wish to be behind our neighbours. It is necessary that we kill a traitor.”

That is but one side of the picture. The reverse is more terrible still. War is inevitably calamitous, but never was there a war waged with more in-famous ferocity than the Guerra de la Independencies. Of the conduct of Napoleon’s veterans in their other campaigns I cannot speak, but here they showed themselves little less than fiends in human shape. There was no act of brutality, no subtlety of torture, no hideous obscenity, of which they were not guilty. For the most part they fought not with trained troops but with a rabble of peasants, with women and children. It was not so much a war as the martyrdom of a people.

In a case in the basement of the Prado you will find a set of drawings in sanguine, the preparatory sketches for ” Los Desastres de la Guerra,” in which Goya told the story of this national tragedy. Of many of the incidents of the war Goya was himself an eyewitness ; under some of the scenes he has written : ” Yo lo vi” (I saw it) ; ” Y esto tambien (And this too) ; ” Asi succedio ” (Thus it happened). In the autumn of 1808, after the first heroic defence of Zaragoza, he visited the beloved city, and received an exact account of the exploits of that Spanish Jean d’Arc, Maria Agustina, who when the last gunner of a battery had fallen climbed over the heap of corpses and herself fired the cannon in the face of the advancing enemy. And in that journey through the death-stricken country what did he not himself see and hear of the disasters of the war ! Here in these trenchant pencil strokes is the record, with the terse commentary of a man whose heart was too full for many words. Burning villages, women fleeing with infants at their breasts or quivering at the point of the bayonet, fields of unburied dead —” Para eso habeis nacido ! ” he comments (For this were you born !)—mutilated men impaled upon the trunks of trees—” Grande hazana. Con Muertos I” (A great feat with the dead !)-on the scaffold the grim rows of garotted peasants—”No se puede saber por que” (No one knows why). Sights still worse—” No se puede mirar,” he writes (Things that cannot be seen)—and beneath an act of extremest savagery—” Qué hay que hater mas?” (What is there more to be done ?).

It is characteristic of Goya that he viewed war stripped of its pomp and circumstance. He saw it as it was and is—the uncaging of the tiger in man. He seems indeed to have been almost blind to that aspect of heroism which redeems the primal savagery. The heroic act of the Maid of Zaragoza draws from him a note of admiration—” Qué valor ! ” For the rest, he reiterates the exclamation —” Brutality ! ” About the greatest” of human illusions he has no illusion. In drawing after drawing he states without mincing matters his conviction that to fight is after all only to murder. I think that it is this insistence not merely upon strife but upon murder that gives these drawings a character of horror more emphatic than that of any other representations of warfare. And it is not only against the barbarousness of war that he utters his passionate protest, but also against its tragical illogicality. Two men fly at one an-other’s throats like dogs for no better reason than that one was born in Valencia and the other in Provence ; hale men who once won their bread now beg for it, maimed and useless ; women suffer anguish and outrage ; children starve and die in the streets-why ? he questions bitterly, why? why?

This series of ” Los Desastres ” has been read by some as a kind of epic of patriotism. I confess I am unable to view it in that light. To me it appears rather to be at once satirical and elegiac. The passion that inspires it is not the patriot’s hatred of the invader but the sick horror of a sensitive spirit at the human lust of blood. Patriotism is blind of an eye and sees but one half of the truth

Goya’s vision was direct and impartial. He refuses to make his countryman the hero and the invader the villain of the tragedy. He shows a company of soldiers shooting down a couple of wretched peasants and comments : ” Con razón ó sin ella” (With or without reason) ; in the next drawing a peasant armed with an axe is seen hacking at a wounded soldier and his annotation is : ” Lo mismo” (It is all the same). For him there is neither Frenchman nor Spaniard, there is only man, and he laments bitterly that man is only a little higher than the beast. The emotion of patriotism was submerged in the deep tide of despair that swept over his soul.

Yet although Goya was shocked by the disasters of the war, there can be no doubt that he was also fascinated. There is of course no paradox here, but only an exemplification of a common psychological experience ; for the fascination of being shocked is at the root of much of human entertainment, from the Greek theatre to the modern daily paper and cinematograph show. To most men, however, the spectacle of tragedy is only pleasurable, or indeed only tolerable, when it is represented, realistically, perhaps, but still viewed at several removes from real life. The Spaniard, owing to the persistence in his nature of a certain primitive insensitiveness, is not so queasy as the rest of us over-civilised Europeans ; he can dispense with the fictitious element in tragedy and comfortably digest his horrors raw. The bullfight is not the only instance of his crude relish of pain. The realistic and agonised images which are to be found in Spanish churches prompted Maurice Barrés to remark : ” I suspect the Spaniards of finding pleasure in the sight of the sufferings of Christ.” I have already alluded to this element of tragedy in the art of Ribera. Here we find it even more insistent in the art of Goya. He was impelled by an irresistible—and I suppose racial—impulse to seize life upon its tragic side. He had not to search for his material, for in the Spain of his day, or rather of his later days, the tragic side was uppermost. It is in his treatment of the material, however, that he differs from the other great masters, both in painting and literature, who have woven the tragic weft of life into the tissue of art. These have in part unravelled the tangled threads and impressed upon tragedy a certain ennobling design. With their deeper and clearer vision they have discerned the gleam of a divine order in the welter of mortal happenings ; and in discerning an order they have discerned a lurking and unsuspected beauty. When caught up into their art the agony of life has not indeed fallen away, but become transfigured. They have half-heard the whispered secrets of Fate ; they may not know how to interpret the message aright, but they are reassured ; and their assurance gives their work largeness and serenity. They know that the blindness which man attributes to destiny is in himself, and that, could the scales but fall from his eyes, he would see the tragedy of life to be none other than the Divine Comedy.

The tragedy which Goya shows us has gone through no purifying process in his spirit. It has not been transfigured or re-created ; it is still patternless and raw-edged. It has not passed into music, not even into the sobbing music of a dirge—it is the same unmodulated shriek of anguish that assaults our hearing in the daily affray of life. He holds up to us only the mirror of our own perplexed despair. His vision is keen enough to detect the fraud of all those comfortable illusions and superficially explanatory philosophies with which we weakly attempt to anæsthetise the smart of reality-these he tears contemptuously away ; but he is too fevered and impatient to see life steadily and whole. He shows it to us in a disconnected series, slices of life, bleeding fragments, torn from the congruous body. And, because no synthesis is possible for him, he believes that none exists. He despairs of life —but with a despair that does not smoulder into apathy but flames up in bitter revolt. His tone is always challenging and accusatory. And since there is no credible or even intelligible answer to his accusation, he passes swift and savage judgment. He pardons nothing because he understands nothing.

I shall be reminded that it is not the business of art to attempt to solve the problem of pain or to hazard guesses at the riddle of the universe, and that Goya showed a just sense of its limitations in preferring to exhibit slices of life rather than to attempt an interpretation of the whole. He tosses us these raw and palpitating fragments and leaves us to digest them as best we may. Strong meat and nourishing—but is it ingratitude to look for something more ? For we of the lesser sort also see life fragmentarily, without coherence, as children in a crowd catch broken glimpses of a passing procession, and we could wish that the seer from his higher altitude might give us a larger presentment, either in words or paint, a view of the whole, not less but more true than that disorder of reality which bewilders our feebler eye. But heaven forbid that at this late hour I should be lured into a discussion of the purpose of art—a digression which I am sure would be infinitely longer and more barren than any of which I have been guilty hitherto.